Once upon a time…there was a musical by Rodger’s and Hammerstein based on the well know fairy tale “Cinderella,” about a young girl who is kept in domestic slavery by an evil stepmother and her two stepsisters, but is ultimately saved by a handsome Prince. It had some memorable tunes and lyrics, but a dull book and a message as outdated as the tale itself. Although I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to be the standby for a lead (The Fairy Godmother) in a production of this musical at Lincoln Center that used the former book, I was interested to hear last year that a new production with an updated book by the talented Douglas Carter Beane was coming to Broadway. For although the music is sweet, I have always thought that the book was pretty lame and lamented over the trite dialogue which never really allowed any of the character’s to evolve.
The good news is that Bean has retained the sweetness and humor, while allowing the actors to have more to play with. Cinderella has become more assertive (she hands the slipper to the Prince herself!) and the Prince is not as slow in mental process as before. Some characters have been cut, notably Prince Topher’s parents, and some added, a controlling advisor to the prince, and he gives the ones that do remain more dialogue. The Step Sisters, instead of having to just play cartoon “evil” each been given more individual personalities. The Fairy Godmother, whose name here is Marie, morphs from a forest wandering dingbat resembling the beggar woman in “Sweeney Todd” (sans any profanities) to a wise airborne cheerleader of life’s possibilities. Mark Brokaw directs with a sure hand and has added lots of delightful touches throughout. The choreography of Josh Rhodes is twirling, buoyant fun, and shows off the beautiful costumes designed by William Ivey Long. Cinderella gets not one, but two, chances to change into one of those gowns literally in front of our eyes! Scenic Designer Anna Louizos gives us a lush forest (complete with a tree monster straight out of Lord of the Rings), a cozy cottage and an elegant ballroom that slide in and out with the greatest of ease. Kudos must be given to Production Stage Manager Ira Mont and his team for the smoothness of those transitions. Kenneth Posner’s lighting design is highly effective, as is the sound design by Nevin Steinberg. Fight direction by Thomas Schall is also top notch, and the use of puppets for woodland creatures is a joyous touch.
As the lead characters, Laura Osnes is a lovely, sincere Cinderella and Santino Fontana as the Prince brings just the right balance of robust voice and tongue in cheek delivery to the role. Victoria Clark shines as Marie, The Fairy Godmother with a twinkle in her eye (should it be any other way?) and a ringing soprano that builds to a dramatic climax. As Madame, Cinderella’s Stepmother, Harriet Harris is dark and understated, bringing an interesting little girl lost quality to the role. Ann Harada is very funny as Charlotte the boisterous step sister who in this production gets the former duet “Stepsister’s Lament” to herself, with the court ladies a backup singers, while Marla Mindelle does a great job as Gabrielle the “nicer” stepsister who ultimately assists Cinderella, and who has a nice scene with her own love interest, a local man called Jean Michael (a lovable Greg Hildreth) who is trying to provoke political change in the kingdom. Then there is the Peter Bartlett as Sebastian, the advisor to the Prince, who seems to have a thing for the Stepmother, tossing off droll snarky well timed comic remarks left and right, and Phumzile Sojola as Lord Pinkleton, the Royal Herald, who brings down the house with a high tenor voice of liquid gold. The entire talented ensemble does a remarkable job as they double throughout as village folk, royal guests or acrobatic woodland critters. It’s still the Cinderella story, just more fun and interesting. Take the family and have “a ball.”